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The Four Horseman of the Pandemic Year: Looking Back at 2020 — Part 2

A Q&A with Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson

Masked Statue of Liberty
Image credit: Alexandra Koch

When we look back at the year 2020, how can we describe what really happened? In A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year, award-winning historians Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson set out to preserve what they call the “focused confusion,” and to probe deeper into what they consider the Four Pandemics that converged around the 12 astonishing months of 2020: disease, disinformation, poverty, and violence.

Organized into the journal-entries along with dozens of archival images, A Deeper Sickness will help readers sift through the chaos and misinformation that characterized those frantic days. It is both an unflinching indictment of a nation that is still reeling and a testament to the power of human resilience and collective memory. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Drs. Peacock and Peterson to chat about it. This is part two of their two-part Q&A.

Christian Coleman: You built a digital museum as a companion to the book. How did you put it together? What were some of the first sources you went to for archives?

Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson: Erik started collecting sources from China, including social media posts, in January 2020. Margaret had her own set of documents about how the US government was shaping the narrative surrounding the spread of the disease. And we had all this sitting on our computers. Between the two of us, we were worried:  

  1. that we would lose sources,
  2. that we would overlap what we were collecting and make each other’s work redundant,
  3. that we would be too siloed in what sources we located.

So, our first step was simply to build this massive Zotero database in April 2020 to hold what were hundreds of sources. Then thousands. Within just a few weeks, we realized we needed a whole team of people to help us ensure we were getting sources from all over the place—as many diverse perspectives as we could get. We didn’t want to just replicate what would already appear on CNN or Fox or ABC or the New York Times. We wanted stuff that was way outside of the mainstream and was likely to be lost as soon as the pandemic waned. Plus, we wanted personal stories from healthcare professionals, attorneys, teachers, dairy farmers, parents stuck at home, “essential workers” at grocery stores and post offices and driving the bus, you name it. However, as you might expect, the more voices you add, the harder it gets to collect everything and make sense out of it.

As June became July, then August, it became clear that our research was far too extensive for a single book. Because we were gathering not just material from nearly every single day of 2020 itself, we also tried to dive into the historical, medical, scientific, political, even philosophical context of every day’s events. Despite the fact that it seems that “nothing is lost in the internet,” the sheer volume means that you lose sources extremely quickly. They get buried. Or they just disappear from the ether. In other words, we knew we had to keep vacuuming up everything in sight because we didn’t know what would last and what would disappear. Which, once Twitter and other forms of social media started kicking people off as violence escalated in the last quarter of the year, did start happening in earnest.

CC: What’s your process for adding stories and content to the website?

MP and ELP: We were committed from the beginning to providing all the sources we used for the book in addition to any further primary and secondary research. In an age when belief is constantly being mistaken for fact, we wanted readers not just to see our footnotes, but to interact with them.

Before becoming a historian, Margaret was an information and database architect in Silicon Valley. She came to this project with the skills needed to devise a robust data collection process and to construct the Digital Humanities site that would exhibit that data. We started by building a database with established metadata fields to help with searching and sorting data. In 2021, while Margaret built the actual digital humanities site in Wordpress (housed on servers graciously provided by the Alabama Digital Humanities Center under the incredible direction of Dr. Anne Ladyem McDivitt), we worked with a separate team of programmers to develop a tool that would retrieve data in real time from the Zotero database and load it into Wordpress. While parts of that tool had to be left on the cutting room floor (it had too many bugs to be able to go into production this close to publication), we and our team nonetheless managed to get the over 12,000 sources from 2020 loaded onto the site, with full searching capabilities and a sorting tool that allows you to view materials for any given day of the year.

The site represents countless hours of labor by teams of people. We are very proud of it and hope it will be a resource for researchers, teachers, and students for years to come.

CC: One line in the introduction really struck a chord with me. “Americans, as we found, too often substitute folklore for history.” Was this a launching point for the book? An observation that came to light as you wrote the book and put together the website?

MP and ELP: History is a powerful force. It creates our sense of self, nation, people, tribe, town, family, etc. When it is constructed on false premises, like the myth that the Civil War was about states’ rights or the lie that slavery was not a terrible institution that sits at the founding of the country, it creates distorted, sick, Frankenstein-like versions of those identities, both at the individual and at the group level. Those false premises lead people to make the same ahistorical mistakes, generation after generation, and they render them incapable of facing the realities of their past so that they can heal and move on. 

Despite the dangers of hanging on to mythical histories, Americans still create them because the myths are comfortable. They create a heroic sense of national destiny and exceptionalism. Our made-up personal histories make us feel like we’re going to be okay—that the problem is not that serious, not systemic. And yet, as the news media repeats ad nauseum, America feels more fractured now than it has since 1865. This has so much to do with the incompatible false histories, false identities we’ve constructed for ourselves. We’re sick with this falseness. And a significant proportion of state, school board, and even federal legislators want us to keep soldiering on with the sickness. They want to make it a crime to even diagnose it as “sick”!

As historians have seen in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, in so many other parts of the world, if we ever want to heal as a nation, we must clean out our festering historical wounds, set our broken historical bones. This is what historians do.

CC: It’s an emotional roller coaster to re-experience 2020 through the book. What’s it like for you both to look back at that year now that the book is out and the website is live?

MP and ELP: Jeez. We have talked a lot about this. For both of us, writing the book became a way to cope with the chaos. We could wake up each morning in 2020 and know that we had certain tasks that had to be completed. It provided structure when there was none. This lasted through 2021 as we worked feverishly to build the digital humanities site. That project ended a few months ago, and we are only now beginning to look back and make sense of the experience. On the one hand, we would like to forget all of it and move on. On the other hand, we know that the struggle against injustice requires a struggle against forgetting. And so, we have gone back to the classroom to teach the hard lessons. We look back on 2020 with the desperate hope that something was learned.


Visit their digital museum.

Read part 1.


About Drs. Peacock and Peterson

Dr. Margaret Peacock is a historian of media and propaganda in Russia, the United States, and the Middle East, with graduate degrees in history and information science. She currently teaches at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Erik L. Peterson is a historian of science and medicine, with graduate degrees in history, philosophy, and anthropology. He currently teaches at the University of Alabama.